Yesterday afternoon at Meadow Park in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, Chesham United defeated Hinckley United by three goals to nil in the Premier Division of the Calor Gas Southern Football League. Under different circumstances, it would have been the most unassuming of matches. Chesham United are chasing promotion at the top of the table, while their visitors are just above the relegation places at the foot of the table, and on the pitch the outcome of this match was never likely to be in any great doubt. Away from it, however, the match has taken on a significance which overshadows anything that could have happened on the pitch, for the travelling supporters, at least, because yesterday afternoon those travelling supporters from Hinckley may just have seen their club play its final match.
It is less than twelve months since the club suffered the indignity of the cancellation of a home league match in the Blue Square Bet North against Bishops Stortford because it was unable to raise a team for the match following the imposition of a transfer embargo. This wasn’t the first time that the club had found itself in severe difficulty, either. Hinckley lost in the Blue Square Bet North play-offs in 2007, but its decline since then has been rapid. Two years ago the club finished in third from bottom place in the finals Blue Square Bet North table and was only spared from relegation as a result of the demotion of Kettering Town and Darlington from the Blue Square Premier following their financial difficulties. In 2010, a winding up petition was brought against the club by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill which led to a player registration embargo. This particular fire was extinguished, but ongoing difficulties have been perpetual at the club’s De Montfort Park and the club finished last season with just seven points – six were deducted from them – and having conceded one hundred and forty-three goals.
The agony has continued into this season, and at the time of writing Hinckley United are in third from bottom place in the table, although those looking for some sort of consolation for this club might like to reflect upon the fact that the team is only one point off matching its tally from forty-two matches last season. Most of the drama at De Montfort Park this season has, however, come away from the pitch. The club had a widing up petition issued against it by former chairman Kevin Downes, who left the club in 2012 following disagreements with other board members, over a £187,000 debt which originates from from unpaid rent on the main stand at the club’s ground, which belongs to Downes’s family pension fund and is leased to the club. So far so commonplace, but it is at this point that the story of Hinckley United starts to veer somewhat from the norm.
The club’s winding up petition was due to be heard on the twentieth of September at Birmingham County Court, but it was adjourned by solicitors acting for the Downes family who requested a six week adjournment but were instructed by the judge concerned that only a two week adjournment would be permitted because the club was trading insolvently. A subsequent statement from the club itself confirmed that there is a major investor that wants to put money into the club. Over the course of the last couple of weeks or so, however, it has been the petitioner that has been apparently the most interested party in keeping the club alive. Downes has adjourned the hearing and has also sought to get the club placed into administration, but the club itself feels that this is not the way forward:
The directors believe it is for the good of the club in the end. Going into administration would be a short term fix and not solve the underlying financial issues. If liquidation happens the first team will go for this season, the club will play in a lower league with a different name and retain the academy and juniors. The club needs reinventing, just like Nuneaton Borough did. They went into liquidation, got relegated and now look where they are.
Meanwhile, however, the police have become involved in goings-on at the club following complaints from share-holders over the transfer of assets this year. It has been reported that this anger centres on centre on the board’s decision to transfer assets from Hinckley United FC Limited – the company subject of the ongoing insolvency order – to another company, Hinckley United Stadium Limited. It has been argued that the board transferred assets from Hinckley United FC Ltd into Hinckley United Stadium Ltd was designed to “safeguard shareholders” in the event of the club’s collapse, but this, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that what has been going on at the club has been legal. Publicly avaiable documents from Companies House confirm that Hinckley United Stadium Ltd was established on the sixth of January 2012 as Hinckley United AFC Limited, before changing its name two days later, whilst further changes were made after this, with resolutions being passed to ‘adopt or alter memorandum and articles’ – to change the way in which the company is run – whilst on the nineteenth of September a change of name certificate was filed with Companies House.
So, what has been going on ay Hinckley United Football Club, then? The answer is that not that mant people know because, other than a statement stating that”Everything that has been done by the board has been legal and in the best interests of shareholders”, the club itself has remained tight-lipped over its bizarre behaviour of late. The fact that its current owners seem so keen to iterate that “The club needs reinventing”, however, which seems to indicate that those that have overseen its collapse over much of the last couple of seasons seem to believe that they deserve a clean slate and to start over. There is little in their record over this period of their time, however, to suggest that they actually do deserve it.
All that we know for certain is that should the petition to wind the club up be granted tomorrow, the people of Hinckley – or at least those loyal few who have stuck with the club over the period of this fall from grace – will be left without a club for the remainder of this season, whilst the other clubs of the Southern League, who have had the expense of playing Hinckley this season, may well be wondering why the directors didn’t just resign the club’s place and do this all themselves during the summer rather than starting the season and then folding before the clocks even went back. The directors’ fiefdoms may well have been preserved, but as ever it is the supporters – along with creditors of this failure of a football club who will lose out. And as talk starts to turn to what kind of football club might become the new football club for this Leicestershire town, perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked will be that of whether those that have overseen it ending up in the position in which it finds itself tomorrow should ever be allowed within a mile of the boardroom of any football club, ever again.
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